A concerted effort is underway to remove homeless encampments ringing the Santa Ana River bottom in Riverside to reduce fire danger and the risk to inhabitants of getting caught in a flood, city officials said Wednesday.
“Our primary concern is always our residents’ safety,” Mayor Rusty Bailey said. “The city has made great strides expanding outreach services, housing and support for our most vulnerable neighbors, but we must also protect neighbors living in housing near the river.”
Fire department personnel, police officers, code enforcement officers and staff from the Office of Homeless Solutions, as well as the Riverside University Health System, have been walking the river bottom, making contact with transients and others to encourage them to relocate.
In a few instances, the police department’s Air 1 helicopter crew has flown overhead, broadcasting requests for inhabitants to leave.
The push to vacate began last week and was prompted by the Dec. 21 wildfire that erupted under the Mission Inn Avenue bridge, adjacent to Mount Rubidoux. Numerous properties were threatened by the 50-acre blaze, which forced the evacuation of dozens of homes before it was contained hours later.
A homeless cooking fire was believed to be the source.
There have been prior attempts to dislodge itinerants from the river bottom, but the area is a draw for many chronically homeless people.
Wildfires are a recurring problem along the channel, which acts as a natural boundary separating Riverside from Jurupa Valley. It’s dry most of the year, except during winter rains. Flash floods are not uncommon in the waterway, posing a threat to those dwelling in or near it.
“From fire to potential floods, the danger in the river bottom makes it unsuitable for living,” Councilman Chris MacArthur said. “City staff, including our first responders, are to be commended for this proactive approach.”
Camps are being forcibly dismantled, but city spokesman Phil Pitchford noted that, whenever possible, inhabitants are given advance notice that their set-ups are illegal, and that they must go elsewhere.
Workers from Operation SafeHouse, a Riverside nonprofit that provides transitional housing assistance, have been involved in trying to arrange temporary shelter for campers, he said.
“The recent fires show the danger that heat and cooking fires pose to everyone living in the immediate vicinity, including other people living in the river bottom,” Councilman Mike Gardner said. “I am glad to see our city reaching out to these individuals to mitigate that danger and also offer services to help them begin the process of leaving homelessness behind.”
The city is in the process of embarking on a multi-year plan to end long-term homelessness, with plans to construct a housing complex in which to place those who are on the streets, without any means of paying for lodging.
–City News Service
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